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Journalists’ group begins struggle against Media Council Bill

  • The legislation to replace Press Council Act will have power to issue hefty fines and give the government more say in the hiring and firing of council members
- TIKA R PRADHAN, Kathmandu

May 13, 2019-

The Federation of Nepali Journalists has said its struggle against the government’s plan to control the media has started and that it will continue its fight until the Media Council Bill is withdrawn from Parliament.

As part of its weeklong struggle, the umbrella group of journalists across the country organised an interaction on Sunday with the stakeholders and experts, including editors of major mainstream publications.

“We are on the streets now,” said Ramesh Bista, general secretary of the federation. “We seek solidarity from the stakeholders, including editors, to ensure that the draconian bill is withdrawn from Parliament. If the Media Council Bill is endorsed, journalists will have to languish in prison simply for doing their job.”

The Media Council Bill, which aims to replace the existing Press Council Act and was registered in Parliament on Thursday, will have more authority to issue hefty fines and give the government more say in the hiring and firing of the council members.

The proposed bill aims to give sweeping powers to the self-regulatory body overseeing the press, and information rights activists and journalists have been saying that the new council could increase direct attacks on the press.

“Now the media have reached the situation of pre-censorship,” said Gunaraj Luintel, editor-in-chief of the Nagarik vernacular daily. “We must tell the public why the government is trying to move backwards.”

The way the government moved the bill to Parliament has also caused concern, as a critical consultation phase with the stakeholders and the public was avoided.

The consultation phase, which has long been in practice, is considered a critical element of the democratic exercise of lawmaking.

Krishna Jwala Devkota, editor-in-chief of Naya Patrika, another vernacular daily, said the government’s attitude towards media--and the use of demeaning tones and sarcasm while talking about press--is not new, but fresh attempts are being made to gag the media through the laws.

Earlier, the Press Council could ask for clarification, apology, and blacklist certain press organisations, but now the bill aims to give the council authority to issue monetary punishment ranging from Rs25,000 to one million rupees. The provisions in the proposed Media Council Bill will also give the council greater power to write to the concerned authority to take action against media organisations if they violate press ethics as defined by the government.

“It’s sad to see such draconian bills being drafted by a political system for which we made sacrifices,” said Om Sharma, founder of Ratopati, an online news portal. “Online media would suffer the most if the Media Council Bill is endorsed in its present form.”

Speakers at Sunday’s interaction also drew the government’s attention to the country’s constitution which guarantees full press freedom.

The preamble of the constitution reads: “We, the sovereign people of Nepal, ...

Being committed to socialism based on democratic norms and values... civil liberties, fundamental rights... full freedom of the press..., do hereby pass and promulgate this constitution…”

“How could the federal parliament even entertain the bill which violates the constitutional provision of full press freedom?” asked Narayan Wagle, editor-in-chief of Kantipur daily. “It’s not that press does not make mistake, but it’s our duty to make corrections. The concept of a monitoring body to regulate media is obsolete.”

Experts and stakeholders say the Media Council Bill is one in the series of moves that the KP Sharma Oli administration has made in the recent past, aiming to curtail freedom of expression.

The Information Technology Bill, giving sweeping powers to the authorities to block social media platforms if they are not registered in Nepal, also has raised alarm, as rights advocates say it curtails freedom of speech online and increases surveillance of personal data.

The government has also tabled yet another bill seeking to amend the National Human Rights Commission Act, which rights activists say will curtail the authority of the rights watchdog.

Mohna Ansari, a member of the National Human Rights Commission, said the organisations that struggled for a better system had become the government’s target. “We cannot even think of a controlled press,” she said. “The national rights watchdog has felt that the government is trying to infringe upon the fundamental rights of the citizens.”

Former chairman of the federation Taranath Dahal, who chairs the civil liberty group Freedom Forum, however, said the struggle should focus on amending the problematic clauses of the bill instead of withdrawing it.

Experts have expressed concerns over the freewheeling provisions in the bill that allow anyone who feels that a report violates press ethics--not just the person or organisation reported--to file a complaint against the reporter, editor or publisher.

“How can the government punish publishers when the editors were responsible for the content? This will affect the concept of editorial independence,” Dahal said.

However, Minister for Communications and Information Technology Gokul Banskota defended the bill claiming that the Media Council was not the final decision-making body and that “several good provisions have been incorporated into it”.

“Nor is it a quasi-judicial body; its decision can be challenged at high courts,” he told the Post.

Meanwhile, Sher Bahadur Deuba, president of the opposition Nepali Congress, has termed the Media Council Bill a coup against press freedom. At a press conference organised by the party office in Sanepa on Sunday, Deuba told reporters that the bill was against the spirit of the constitution. “This is a coup against press freedom and journalists.

Published: 13-05-2019 08:41

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